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Ice Road Rookie

Ice Road Rookie
By Matthew Harrell

Ice road trucking is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. With a job description that includes sub-zero working conditions, long hours with little sleep, and the risk of potentially falling through a road made of ice, it's amazing that anyone signs up for the job. Incredibly, these are only a few challenges of being an ice road trucker.

Ice road trucking has been dubbed as a two month long "dash for cash." Road crews spend weeks preparing the ice road for the trucks. Using ground-penetrating radar to measure the ice depth, road crews ensure the ice is thick enough (usually a minimum of about 27 inches) to support the big rigs. In what can become a scheduling nightmare, 600-900 truckers are tasked with delivering 10,000 loads at an average speed of only about 20 miles per hour. Drivers haul loads throughout the day and night, often getting little or no sleep before receiving their next load. In addition, drivers constantly battle the cold, physical injuries and mechanical problems. TJ Tilcox is one driver that was unlucky enough to experience all of the above in just his first season on the ice road.

Tilcox, a 22-year-old truck driver from Hillsburg, Ontario, read a newspaper advertisement about a job hauling equipment, blasting materials and food in Western Canada. While relaxing in a bar with some friends in Yellowknife, NT, Canada, a camera crew came in and asked TJ about documenting his journey on the ice road. As it turns out, this crew was from The History Channel's new hit series "Ice Road Truckers." With a 'Why not?' approach to braving the frigid ice road with cameras watching every step, Tilcox agreed and embarked, not looking for the extra money, but for the experience. That's a good thing, because throughout his two month run, there were lots of experiences.

TJ's first careful entrance onto the ice was an experience in itself. The ice, under the extreme weight of the truck, cracks loud enough to be heard inside the cab of the truck. Tilcox remarked that you get used to the fact that you usually hear the ice crack while driving. The times that you get out of the truck on the ice road can be unnerving. "When you're standing there with the truck you can see air bubbles popping in the ice from the weight of the truck sitting there ... and you're just like 'Oh God, I gotta get outta here!'" TJ explained. But it's not only the ice road that poses a hazard to the truckers. Sometimes it can be the truck itself that's dangerous.

One of the first episodes of "Ice Road Truckers" shows TJ tying down a load with a load binder. "I was chaining down a load and the load binder snapped open--I was still hanging onto it and it slammed me into the truck behind me," TJ recalled. Not feeling any immediate pain, TJ finished tying down the load and went back to work. Several days later, TJ began experiencing severe abdominal pain and was to forced struggle through the remainder of his trek before he could receive medical attention. His injury was so severe that he had to be flown to the nearest medical center where he made a speedy recovery.

After getting back on the road from his injury, TJ's truck woes continued. He had been given a 1999 Freightliner Classic flat top with no heat to battle the bitter cold outside. "There's an episode where you can see me building snowballs in the sleeper because that's how cold it got ... and me duct-taping the door ... because the wind just blew through it. Another guy was going home and he asked me if I wanted to drive his truck and I said, 'Sure I'll drive it, as long as it's got heat,'" TJ remarked. As it turns out, TJ's new ride was a brand new 2007 Volvo; a far cry from his last truck.

Things were looking up for the ice road rookie, right? Wrong.

TJ didn't even get to the ice road with the Volvo before he was again plagued by misfortune. An air line in the trailer detached, disabling the brakes. TJ slid on the icy roads until he collided with a pick-up. Tilcox was quickly cleared of responsibility and allowed to continue driving on the ice road.

With the trucks under such enormous strain during the two month stretch of pulling loads in excess of 50 tons, it is understandable that they often have problems. In fact, only minimal modifications are made to the trucks before they hit the ice road. For starters, mechanics install a "belly tarp" under the truck in order to better hold in the truck's heat. Drivers have all the oils and lubes changed in order to minimize the stress on the truck and hopefully prevent mechanical failure. It's also imperative that the truck stays on if at all possible. "You don't want to turn it off because, fifteen minutes [without running] and you might not start it again," Tilcox said about the frigid conditions. TJ added that tire chains are only needed in case of a spinout on an icy hill, or if you get stuck.

While it is important to have the truck in top running order, it could be said that it is even more important to make sure the driver is well rested. With some trips requiring 20 or more hours one-way, driver alertness becomes an issue. When it comes to keeping focused, TJ advised, "The best thing to do is to talk to the people [other drivers on the ice road] around you." He also mentioned that he brings along plenty of snacks and drinks to help him not only stay awake, but also be prepared in case of a breakdown. TJ always makes sure that he is properly rested before he gets out on the road.

With all the precautions taken to ensure the safety of the drivers, none is more important than that of the drivers' speed. As the drivers make the transition from the hard top to the ice, a wave immediately forms under the ice. The heavier the load, the bigger the wave becomes. The danger occurs when two loaded trucks meet at normal speeds, with each truck's wave slightly in front. When the two waves meet, the pressure becomes too great for the ice to withstand and it causes the ice to "blow out." This can result in a truck falling through the ice, and it is for this reason that drivers carrying heavy loads must slow down to 7mph when meeting another loaded truck. When a loaded truck and an unloaded truck meet, it is not necessary for either truck to slow down because the unloaded truck's wave is not significant enough to cause a problem.

To further maintain the safety on the ice road, speed limits vary by location. Near the southern end of the ice road, where the ice is thinner, speeds can be as slow as 7 mph. At the northern end of the ice road, thicker ice allows loaded trucks to travel up to about 25 mph. Unloaded trucks can travel up to about 37 mph.

So what do you do if your truck does start to slip into the icy waters below, you ask? "Jump out!" replied TJ quickly. It's as simple as that, with no special safety procedure or high tech gadgets in place. TJ stated that some drivers have been known to drive with one hand on the wheel and the other hand on the door in case of an emergency. "The ice is pretty safe, it's watched and the depth of the ice is checked by ground penetrating radar so they're constantly out there checking the ice and flooding it and making it thicker. They figure about 45 seconds is all you have to live once you go in the ice," he said.

TJ has enjoyed being able to meet new people and see different places as a result of being featured on "Ice Road Truckers." One place he never expected to be was on the set of the late night television show "Jimmy Kimmel Live." "I never liked an audience, I never like to be in a crowd and stuff like that. But you get used to the video camera and I guess being on Jimmy Kimmel you zone in on whoever's watching you and just pay attention to what Jimmy's saying," TJ revealed. "The cameras were a bit different in the truck and stuff like that to start ... but you just start hee-hawing and having fun," TJ said.

Television has not changed TJ, however. "I drive because I love driving and nobody's looking over my shoulder," Tilcox confessed. When he's not driving a truck, TJ still enjoys going hunting, fishing, hanging with his friends, and skeet shooting. He also finds it amusing when people recognize him in public. "They look at you and they're trying to figure out who it is and they've seen you before but they don't know if they should ask, so I get lots of that," Tilcox joked.

TJ is a dedicated fan of the show "Ice Road Truckers." He sits down and watches every episode as it is aired. "I think the show is pretty good, I think they done alright on it," TJ admitted.

Overall, TJ described this past ice road season by saying, "It was one helluva experience."

Matthew Harrell, Staff Writer for CareersinGear.com Magazine, is currently a senior at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Harrell performs industry research as well as conducts interviews and writes articles for CareersinGear.com Magazine and CareersinGear.com, leading sources for truck driving jobs and other trucking job search tools. For more articles by Matthew Harrell, check out the trucking news section in CareersinGear.com.

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